There's No Such Thing As Congestion. There's Just Government.
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
There's No Such Thing As Congestion. There's Just Government.
AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
Story Stream
recent articles

I recently took a trip from Brooklyn to Vancouver, Canada via the Newark Airport. Everywhere I went, I was confronted with the Sovietization of our economy; that is, congestion, long waiting lines, interminable ones. We beat the USSR in the Cold War to be sure; however, their economic system has been quite a bit more than slightly taking over ours.

First of all, the Belt Parkway from Coney Island to the Verrazano Bridge was an adventure in bumper to bumper driving. Not only a bicyclist, nor even a moderately fast runner, but even a race walker could have beaten us. The going in Staten Island was much the same: wall to wall cars, trucks and buses, all sitting there, their occupants twiddling their thumbs in frustration.

Then the Newark Airport. You try to get through those massive TSA lines in less than 90-120 minutes; good luck to you. We are now advised to get to the airport not one hour before take-off, nor even two; three hours is now the eminently reasonable suggestion. I followed this sterling advice and was glad I did. I needed pretty much every minute of that time to get through to my plane.

Why all these massive tie-ups, Soviet style? In that country, during those times, there were massive queues for pretty much everything. We used to look down upon those poor sufferers. They faced serious waiting time for clothes, groceries, toys, you name it; there where interminable line ups. Everything was provided by government and everywhere there was congestion.

In the U.S. in contrast, this malady takes place, also, whenever the state rears its ugly head, but, happily, they are not as widespread as in that forlorn economy. During my trip to the Big Apple I also had occasion to visit two other entities organized, administered, managed, supported by, the all-loving government: the American Museum of Natural History and the Museum of Modern Art. You’ll never guess my experience there? Yes, perpetual queues. One minor detail: out of towners pay admission fees, hefty ones; locals? voluntary contributions only. I guess they don’t much want to encourage tourism.

What is the solution to these stultifying, uneconomical, wasteful lines?  To see this, we must resort to the teachings of economics 101. Congestion is a shortage of whatever good or service is being used, purchased. In the case of a museum, it is access. For highway travel it is getting there at a reasonable speed. Ditto for line ups for air travel. But what is a shortage? When does it occur? It takes place when demand is greater than supply. And what typically occurs when this eventuality takes place? Why, prices rise. That is why we have no queues for ships or sailing wax. Nor for books, toys, shoes and pretty much everything else under the sun.

Why cannot this sane, sensible and simple solution rescue us regarding the nation’s airports, highways and museums? That is because they are all under the aegis of the government, and this wonderful institution has determined that zero prices shall forever prevail.

But what about the poor? How would they survive if prices were charged for road usage, access to airports and museums? Well, they pay for food, clothing, movies and amusement parks; there is no in principle reason why they could not also do in these cases.

How would it work? Let us consider a private road. Would High Occupancy Vehicle lanes be instituted as at present? Not bloody likely. Why allow a mother and two children access to this benefit, while compelling a lawyer or doctor who can create wealth at the rate of $500 per hour to cool his heels in an unprotected lane? No, any private enterprise worth its salt would charge a stiff fee for entry into that lane. More to the point, to borrow a leaf from Uber or Lyft, he would engage in peak load pricing: charge quite a bit for morning and evening rush hours, and very little or nothing at all at 3am. Then, traffic would move smoothly 24-7 and congestion would be a phenomenon of the past. Ditto for all other amenities, such as airport access, museums, now under government control.

Walter Block holds the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at the J. A. Butt School of Business at Loyola University New Orleans, and is a senior fellow of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

Show comments Hide Comments